Leadership Advice for Women: The Mistakes We Make


Working in a male-dominated field taught me a lot about leadership, culture and success. Now, as a career coach, I have some advice for women.

After 20 years coaching both women and men through career advancement and transitions, I have learned a lot about how women are holding themselves back at work—especially in male-dominated fields, because that’s where I started my career.

I was one of the first female traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. When it comes to career, it would have been hard to choose a more aggressive, male-dominated field—especially in the ‘80s when I was starting out.

I faced many double standards in the workplace. At the time, there were no real laws or standards governing sexual harassment and politically incorrect behavior. I simply accepted this for what it was, as I believe most women did in that era. Whether it was projected or real, it always felt like I needed to be twice as good as the men. I loved the competition and believed if I produced the same results I would get the same monetary rewards and opportunities for advancement. Repeatedly, I found that was not the case.

After 15 years in that testosterone-driven environment, I made a change. It was fueled by a desire to wake up every morning and love what I was doing—to help people become more effective leaders, create transformational change personally and professionally, and embrace and foster accountability.

Based on my own experience and listening to the stories of more than a thousand leaders, from aspiring to world-class, here is my advice for women who want to thrive in the corporate world.

Know the Difference Between Truth and Perception

First, it’s important to remember that words and actions are filtered, received and assessed differently by men and women. If you are a powerful, decisive, assertive female leader, you are often perceived as a ball-buster, or worse. This is a cultural nuance and not always conscious—even a very enlightened man might not realize that he’s experiencing and processing men and women differently and not necessarily equally. It’s the soup of our culture but remember, an assessment is merely an assessment—it’s not the truth.

Increase Your Emotional Intelligence

Research shows that raising your emotional intelligence will take you further personally and professionally than anything else you can do. We’re often blind to ourselves and we don’t accurately perceive how we’re being experienced by others. We’re not aware that the impact of what we say and do is often wildly different than our intent. Read up on emotional intelligence, learn how to read a room or engage in individual coaching to accelerate your growth in this area.

It’s Not About “Acting Like a Man”

We lose our authentic selves when we try to model what the male version of power looks like. Yes, women need to get comfortable with confrontation, stand strong in convictions and make decisions quickly, but those are not exclusively male traits. It’s a stereotype that women make emotional decisions and men make analytical decisions. In reality, we all work with three brains. We actually have brain cells in our hearts, stomachs, too. Don’t diminish the power of your instincts—a recent study shows that when it comes to decision-making, instinct may even trump analytics.

Manage Your Emotions

There is no more important leadership skill than the ability to manage yourself. Dave Ulrich, a thought leader in management, once believed that the most important skill for a leader was the ability to inspire teams. But, he found that the self-management of one’s thoughts and mood states was actually more important. Controlling your inner world makes the biggest difference in executive leadership. Women may be more emotionally based; couple that with low self-esteem, a problem many women face, and it’s a career-threatening combination.

Build Your Confidence

If self-confidence is an issue, tackle it. For me, sports made the biggest impact on my ability to succeed in a male-dominated field. I felt like I had an edge because I was fearless and competitive in a way most women were not. All great leaders possess authentic confidence. One of the best ways for women to build confidence is by setting a goal they think is out of their reach and then achieving it. Improv classes are a great way to practice discomfort and learn to think on your feet while building self-esteem.

Toot Your Own Horn

In contrast to men, women are less comfortable showcasing their accomplishments and do less to promote and strategize their personal brand. This has a domino effect because women are not only more humble, they discount their talent and success, while men tend to accentuate their talents. The divide between what an employer thinks an equally qualified man and woman are worth starts with how they present and value themselves in the interview process. Look for opportunities to strategically highlight your achievements.

Stop Being Too Nice

As women, we tend toward being nice and accommodating. You will never be seen as a leader if your primary mode of engagement in the workplace is caretaking. One of my favorite books on this subject is “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office”—every woman will identify with at least one of its eye-opening lessons.

Control the Conversation

Leadership occurs every time there is a conversation, and each conversation offers the opportunity for impact and influence. Your words hold the possibility for building your self-esteem or destroying it. In fact, your leadership, your future, your success—and even what’s possible for you and not possible for you—they are all created by these conversational moments. How aware are you of these moments? Words are the building blocks to creating the life you want. Choose them carefully.

The most powerful and transformational shift you can make is in how you perceive your environment, respond to your environment and move through hard times.

At the end of the day, find your voice and nurture your strengths—be fearless and be bold.

 Jody Michael is a Chicago-based career coach. Get more leadership advice on her blog.

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